We log onto Facebook, check our notifications, accept a friend request, decline an event invitation, reply to a message, and log off. A few months later, we contemplate privacy concerns, fear that our personal information is being compromised, and decide to deactivate our accounts. A year later, we tell our friends that we reactivated our account. Why do we disconnect from Facebook but feel compelled to join the community again? How do social media companies attempt to fight mass deactivation? Tero Karppi, an ICCIT assistant professor who joined the UTM faculty in July 2017, explores the “existential threat” of deactivation in his new book Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds.
Published on October 16, 2018 by the University of Minnesota Press, Karppi’s book builds off the research he started while completing his Ph.D. In the book, he investigates the disconnection that comes alongside social media connectivity and examines how the deactivation of Facebook accounts affects users and the company as a business.
Karppi explains how media artists in 2010 began creating artwork that played with the idea of a “digital suicide,” a complete abandonment of social media accounts that liberated artists and allowed them to live their “real life” again. These artists portrayed social media as dominating and intrusive, leaving people with very little agency over their own lives. Intrigued by this artwork, Karppi became interested in the idea and implications of disconnecting with social media platforms. “For me, connection always holds the potential for disconnection, there cannot be connection without disconnection,” Karppi says.
The new book focuses on the difficulty for an everyday user to leave a social media site. According to Karppi, Facebook prepares for the moment when users deactivate and attempt to combat this growing trend by employing techniques that engage their users. “Why do we keep on using these sites and why do they engage us so strongly?” Karppi asks.
To conduct research for this book, Karppi consulted a variety of sources. He analyzed the artwork that challenged the idea of connectivity, as well as collected data from Facebook’s financial documents, such as the risk factor section, that outlined the risks that the platform may face.
“Then, I looked at the opposing side, how does Facebook engage, how do they capture users’ attention by providing them different kinds of content on their newsfeed, how do they build an infrastructure, or how are they planning on building these different kinds of infrastructure which can connect the whole world,” Karppi explains. “So, I was very interested in how Facebook starts to penetrate our technology.”
For Karppi, in a time when the majority of the population logs into one of the available social media platforms, this research and the ability to critically understand these businesses is increasingly relevant.
“It’s important to understand what are they trying to sell us, what are you actually doing when you’re sharing stuff on Facebook? How does that connect you?”
“How is the information you give either voluntarily or involuntarily translated into marketing data for them?” Karppi says.
So why do we return to social media platforms once we choose to deactivate our accounts? Karppi claims that this is a question he’s “been asking for several years to different audiences.” From students to academics and the general public, Karppi has found that people return for several reasons, for instance some credit the Groups and Events features for their reappearance. Groups and Events update users on information that they would have otherwise missed if they had not been a part of the Facebook community.
To tackle this trending deactivation, companies like Facebook implement techniques that help maintain their users. As one example, Karppi notes that Facebook “friends” instead of “followers” generates an atmosphere favourable for building personal relationships and networks.
Karppi emphasizes that one of the arguments his book makes is that “social media is a business.” When the danger of user disconnection appears, the value of the company becomes threatened. “It’s not only about the users using the site, but it’s also about the [threat on] the business. We need to understand that someone benefits from the fact that users are hanging out [on Facebook].”
In the midst of this cyclical connection and disconnection, Karppi supports that idea that people should remain conscious of their usage. “I think we all should think about our social media connectivity and how we use these platforms, where we use them, and how often we use them.”